Reaching into vehicles during a traffic stop is a risky, often dangerous maneuver for law enforcement officers – but that doesn’t stop them from doing it.
“We use any force necessary to make an arrest,” Wichita police Lt. James Espinoza said. “The officer has to make split-second decisions,” he said, based on the circumstances.
Sometimes those circumstances can take a dangerous turn, such as when a Wichita police officer became lodged in a Toyota Prius he had pulled over in west Wichita for a traffic violation Saturday night.
The 26-year-old man drove in a loop around the Sam’s Club fuel station at least three times with the officer’s legs hanging out of the Prius before the vehicle jumped a barrier, collided with a vehicle exiting the McDonald’s parking lot next door and then headed east in the westbound lane of Kellogg Drive.
The Prius collided with another car, at which point the officer shot and killed the driver, identified by police as Nicholas Garner. The officer was hospitalized after the incident and has since been released.
Police officials aren’t saying why the officer, who has been on the force for more than six years, reached into the Prius. But law enforcement officers say it isn’t a step taken lightly.
“We definitely don’t want to go in through an open window,” Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Chad Crittenden said.
Still, if an officer pulls over a motorist or sees a car on the side of the road and they approach and realize the driver is intoxicated, he said, “you need to get that vehicle turned off or in park.”
It’s not uncommon for an officer in that situation to reach in to turn off the ignition so the impaired motorist doesn’t take off and endanger others on the road, he said. But if the officer reaches in and their arm gets entangled in the steering wheel, “it can go wrong really quick,” especially if the driver decides to put the car in gear and take off.
“In that situation, you don’t know what’s the worst of the two: Go for a ride, or let go and run the risk of getting run over,” Crittenden said.
In January, a Wichita police officer escaped serious injury when he was dragged about 50 feet by a car as a man was escaping. The officer went to the 1600 block of South Old Manor on Jan. 26 to check on the report of a disturbance at an apartment complex, officials have said.
The officer saw a man sitting in a car in an alley next to the apartments, so he stopped. By the time the officer had exited his patrol car, the man was outside his car.
The officer smelled marijuana, so he tried to detain the man. But the man refused the officer’s commands and got back into his car, which was still running.
The officer tried to remove the man from the car, but the man accelerated the vehicle. The officer was dragged about 50 feet, injuring his elbows and knees, before he fell free and the man drove away. The driver was later arrested when his parents brought him back to the scene.
Local law enforcement agencies don’t have policies outlining when, or whether, an officer should reach into a vehicle.
“It would be nonsense and more dangerous to take that discretion away from an officer via a policy,” said Tyler Brewer, director of public safety for the city of Augusta, in an e-mail response to questions.
A motorist may be reaching for a weapon or attempting to swallow evidence, police officials said.
“A lot of it still has to do with hands – where hand placement is in the vehicle,” Espinoza said.
Or it may come down simply to the fact that the motorist or passenger is refusing to obey orders to get out of the vehicle.
“If the guy just refuses to exit the car, at some point I’m going to have to open the door and try to get him out,” said Dan Lehr, senior tactical instructor for the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in Hutchinson.
“In vehicle stops, we teach them that if they’re doing a traffic infraction stop and a driver starts to drive away that they shouldn’t put any part of the body inside” the vehicle, Lehr said.
But it’s one thing to say that in class and another to do it out on the job, he said, adding that he may look into adding some active scenarios to the curriculum.
“Most officers, the last thing they want to do is hurt somebody,” Lehr said.
Even though the Butler County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have a policy on the issue, Sheriff Kelly Herzet said he discourages his deputies from reaching into vehicles during traffic stops.
If the motorist doesn’t exit “after about three times of being told … I think the Taser is the answer now,” Herzet said.
Given the arrival of the open carry of guns in Kansas, “maybe I need to visit with my officers again,” Herzet said.
“Vehicle stops are scary as can be” because of their unpredictability, he said.
Crittenden, the KHP trooper, said law enforcement officers would do well to learn whatever lessons they can from what happened in west Wichita last week. The thought of partially hanging out of a moving car is “scary to think about,” he said.
“Nobody wants to be in that position.”